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Romney wrestles with auto bailouts heading into Michigan primary

 

Mitt Romney is working to stress his Michigan roots and empathy for the state's auto industry as part of a new offensive ahead of the Great Lake State's Feb. 28 primary.

In a new television ad and an op-ed Tuesday in the Detroit News, Romney reminded Michigan Republicans of his upbringing in the state, while working to better couch his opposition to the 2009 bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler engineered by President Obama.

"I grew up in Michigan; it was exciting to be here," Romney says in the ad, in which he appears driving a Chrysler 300. "Michigan's been my home; this is personal."

In the ad, Romney also addresses the federal bailout of the auto industry in broad terms, asking, "How in the world did an industry and its leaders and its unions get in such a fix," while accusing Obama of having done "all these things the liberals had wanted to do for years" without adding specifics.

Joshua Lott / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event in Mesa, Arizona February 13, 2012.

It's a sentiment echoed in Romney's piece in today's Detroit News, in which he expands on his opposition to the 2009 bailout.

The effort seems directed at softening some of the attacks directed at Romney by Democrats associated with the former Massachusetts governor's opposition to Obama's handling of the bailout, outlined famously in a New York Times op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."

Obama and his campaign count the revivals for GM and Chrysler among the administration's greatest successes in its first term. Obama trumpeted Chrysler's early repaying of some bridge loans and improved balance sheets by both companies, although the government maintains a significant equity share in both automakers.

"Does anyone believe what Mitt says: that the American auto industry would be better off today if the president hadn't intervened in 2009?" Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod tweeted Tuesday morning.

Other Democratic surrogates attacked Romney for trying to soften or even reverse his position ahead of the primary.

"All of them are wrong," former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said of the GOP field during a DNC conference call Tuesday, "but for Romney in particular it shows that the man has no principles, no core."

"Remember, that was then and this is now. Then he said let them go into bankruptcy," said Michigan Rep. John Dingell, seizing on a portion in Romney's op-ed hailing GM and Chrysler's revival. "He is now finding that success is here, and he wants to rush out and claim success, and claim participation in that success."

Romney's opposition to the bailout does little to distinguish him from his competitors in the Republican primary in Michigan.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who's surged nationally versus Romney since scoring upset victories in a trio of nominating contests last week, appears poised to take a run at Romney on his home turf in Michigan. Santorum's on the air in the Wolverine State, and some automated polls (which aren't recognized by NBC News) suggest Santorum is within striking distance of victory in the Michigan primary, which Romney won during his presidential campaign of 2008.

Moreover, Santorum's position on the auto bailouts is virtually identical to Romney's. "I called for a structured bankruptcy from the very beginning," Santorum said in January on C-SPAN. "They could have gone through a structured bankruptcy. And the only difference between those two companies coming out of bankruptcy versus the bailouts Obama put in place was that the unions wouldn’t take ownership share of the company. The bondholders who were all in line under the rule of law should have gotten their fairer share of the company."

Former House Speaker Gingrich has also voiced opposition to the auto industry bailout.

Romney has homed in now on the treatment of unions as a main point of criticism toward Obama's handling of the managed bankruptcy. Romney says the president had eventually pursued the managed bankruptcy option Romney had preferred, but did so in a way that unfairly advantaged the UAW and organized labor over Chrysler and GM's secured creditors -- most of which are located on Wall Street.

"While a lot of workers and investors got the short end of the stick, Obama's union allies — and his major campaign contributors — reaped reward upon reward, all on the taxpayer's dime," Romney wrote in the Detroit News piece, in which he calls for the government to sell off its shares of GM.

But Romney's new strides this week appear more directed at responding to attacks by Democrats, not his rivals in the presidential campaign. The bailout remains generally popular in Michigan, and even some congressional Republicans who represent the issue are on record in favor of the Obama administration's support for GM and Chrysler. Democrats' attacks are meant to saddle Romney in parts of the Midwest where the auto industry remains dominant, and drive up his negatives both for the Republican primary and the general election. (Obama led Romney, 48 to 40 percent, in a January 2012 EPIC/MRA poll of likely Michigan voters, erasing an advantage that Romney had held over the president in 2011 polls.)

Those efforts to define Romney might be aided by Romney's own history on the issue, now trying to largely take credit for the path the Obama adminstration pursued after having pleaded for Washington to ease the path for automakers during the 2008 GOP primary in Michigan.

"The question is, where is Washington?" Romney said during that campaign, according to an account by the New York Times, specifically decrying new fuel efficiency standards for Detroit's Big Three. "Where does it stop? Is there a point at which someone says 'enough'? Or are we going to allow the entire domestic automotive manufacturing industry to disappear?"